When the lawyer for a new online trading company first heard the founder’s suggested name, he was a bit surprised to say the least. He didn’t think “Cadaver” was the most appropriate choice. Later when a number of financial analysts weren’t convinced of the business model, instead of saying “.com” they started saying “.bomb”.
That founder would have the last laugh and would soon be able to paraphrase a famous quote saying “The reports of our death are greatly exaggerated”*.
The founder was of course Jeff Bezos, and the brand would go on to become Amazon
The original name Bezos chose for the brand was “Cadabra”, not “Cadaver”, that was just what the lawyer misheard. “Cadabra” was intended as a reference to the word “abracadabra” and to show how magical online shopping was. However, the lawyer’s response caused Bezos to re-think his plans.
He and his then-wife, MacKenzie Tuttle, began searching for alternatives. They registered the domain names Awake.com, Browse.com, and Bookmall.com. They also registered the domain name Relentless.com which according to reports in Business Insider was a favourite. However, testing on friends suggested it was often felt to be unfriendly. It was dropped as front runner, but the pair kept the registration and if you type “Relentless.com” into your browser today, you’ll be redirected to Amazon.com homepage. (Go on, try it)
Like some previous brand founders, Bezos’ final choice was led by a letter. George Eastman is said to have come up with Kodak as he liked the letter ‘K’ and thought it was incisive**, but Bezos’ choice of ‘A’ was pragmatic. At the time, website listings were alphabetized, so a word that started with ‘A’ would be a sensible choice.
Bezos started leafing through the ‘A’ section of a dictionary. When he landed on the word “Amazon,” the name of the largest river on the planet, he decided that was the perfect name for what he planned would become earth’s largest bookstore… and more.
Bezos had a vision of explosive growth and ecommerce domination which was summed up in his motto “Get Big Fast”. He contended that the brand would not merely be a retailer of consumer products rather Amazon.com was a technology company whose business would be simplifying online transactions for consumers. He 1996 he handed out T-shirts with the motto printed on it at a company picnic.
It was this thinking that was often met with scepticism and led to financial journalists and analysts disparaging the company and referring to it as Amazon.bomb. Doubters claimed Amazon.com ultimately would lose in the marketplace to established bookselling chains, such as Borders and Barnes & Noble once they had launched competing e-commerce sites. The lack of immediate company profits seemed to justify its critics.
However, the brand was getting Big, Fast. It reached 180,000 customer accounts by December 1996, after its first full year in operation, and less than a year later, in October 1997, it had 1,000,000 customer accounts. Its revenues jumped from $15.7 million in 1996 to $148 million in 1997, followed by $610 million in 1998. In 1999 Bezos was Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
The company quickly began to diversify, selling more than books. Music and video sales started in 1998. That same year it began international operations with the acquisition of online booksellers in the United Kingdom and Germany. By 1999 the company was also selling consumer electronics, video games, software, home-improvement items, toys and games, and much more.
Bezos and his team worked tirelessly to claim the high ground of Internet retailing before anyone else got there.
Looking back in 2015 as he announced Amazon’s results Bezos said “Twenty years ago, I was driving the packages to the post office myself and hoping we might one day afford a forklift, this year, we pass $100 billion in annual sales and serve 300 million customers.”
Looking at the evolution of the logo raises a question for me, did he also choose Amazon as the name because it included the ‘Z’ and the potential to highlight the Amazon was the everything brand? The arrow (smile) linking the A and the Z only became part of the identity in 2000.
And finally, despite its size and success, Bezos can actually foresee the brand’s demise. In a recording of a 2018 all-hands meeting Bezos is heard to say…
“Amazon is not too big to fail … In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years”.
Bezos went on to say (then) that it was his job to delay that date by as long as possible, and ensure that reports of its death continue to be an exaggeration.
And the moral of this story is Think BIG. Amazon didn’t set out just to sell book, Disney is more than films… what is your Big Hairy Audacious Goal?
* The quote “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” is often attributed to Mark Twain but it is not quite accurate. The real quote comes from Twain’s response to a journalist from the New York Journal who contacted him to inquire whether the rumours that he was gravely ill or already dead were indeed true. He replied “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
** I tell a longer version of The George Eastman – Kodak story in my book “The Prisoner and the Penguin” which is still available on Amazon (and other retailers too!) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Prisoner-Penguin-Giles-Lury/dp/1907794514